Author Jason Horsley: Blood Poets: A Cinema of Savagery (from the intro to The Blood Poets)
It’s unsettling to think that at any moment life can flare up into senseless violence. But it can and does, and people need to be ready for it. The process of life presupposes violence, in the plant world the same as the animal world. But among the animals only man can conceptualize violence. Only man can enjoy the idea of destruction.
—Paul Bowles, Conversations
Violence would seem to be the most seductive of all forbidden subjects; unlike sex, it is something we only enjoy vicariously. Most of us would admit to being personally appalled and revolted by actual violence, whether witnessed at a safe distance (barroom brawl, car crash, etc.) or actually directed at our own person. In the former case, a certain perverse fascination remains, but in the latter all such mixed feelings have given way to a total aversion, as mere instinct (self-preservation) takes over. In cinema however, our feelings become far more complex. Most (but not all) males would admit to taking a certain pleasure or satisfaction in screen violence, so long as it is effectively depicted. This last stipulation is of course the key. Just what constitutes “effective depiction of violence”?
Clearly it is not merely a matter of realism, as such films as Robocop, Dawn of the Dead, and The Road Warrior are among those most treasured by this blood-seeking (male) audience. In fact, such “serious” meditations on the nature of violence as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer are invariably total duds with the mass audience, and with reason: Henry is a nigh-unwatchable film, not an ordinary “bad” film, but a sort of anomaly. We don’t need a film to show us that violence is sordid and repulsive; we already know this. Anyone who’s ever sliced his thumb or stubbed his toe knows this.
A great film about violence, such as Taxi Driver, The Wild Bunch, or Fight Club (as opposed to a great film that happens to be violent, such as The Godfather), must raise—though not necessarily answer—questions about the meaning of violence. It must on the one hand present it unflinchingly in all its horror and brutality, and on the other poeticize it, make it beautiful to us, in order to establish its terrible allure. Above all, the script must itself be a justification for, and a meditation on, this violence. Otherwise we have simply another pop holocaust for the masses to munch popcorn over. The paradox in the above is obvious. The filmmaker and his film must, like the audience, be manifestly ambivalent about violence in order to present it honestly to us. It’s no good to simply condemn it as wrong, since this amounts to no more than an empty (and impotent) knee-jerk reaction. Such moralizing merely complements (and justifies) the other kind of reactionaryism—movies which glorify violence and thereby tell us, implicitly, that it is right.
A great work of art is always ambiguous, in any case. The alternative is dogma or propaganda, anathema to the true artist, who lives in a constant state of uncertainty about his own feelings. Violence is—along with sex—the subject about which we are all, artists and laymen, most uncertain. It is an intrinsic, inevitable part of life, and yet (like sex), we cannot help but wonder just what it is really there for. Our pleasure in violence is a guilty pleasure, certainly; but it is not necessarily an immoral or transgressive one.
All animals are violent by instinct. A cat toys with a mouse in what appears to be sadistic glee, but is really just an expression of its hunter instinct. The pleasure of sex is, for an animal at least, a “side effect” of a natural, programmed function. The pleasure is like an incentive (or consolation?) to ensure the animal keep at it and give its full attention to the act. In sex and in violence, the organism comes fully alive, because there is no other way to do justice to the act.
Violence is no longer a natural part of our functioning day; it is not, strictly speaking, necessary to our survival. And yet the basic program for violence remains, hence the continuing passion for hunting, sport, barroom brawling, shooting, war games (real and simulated), and movies. There is no getting away from the fact that man has violence in him, and it must come out. Hence there is no denying that movies (like sport and wrestling and all the other pastimes, including sex) can serve as catharses by which our violence can be experienced, vicariously, and hence released.
The question finally comes down, not to whether a film is for or against violence, or even whether it is art or trash, but to whether it serves to relieve or augment the violence within us. In other words, whether we come out more pent-up, more twisted up inside, than when we went in, or whether we come out in some small way reconciled to our inner tension (if only temporarily). Since this question can never be reduced to a science, censorship can never be anything but tyranny applied to the arts. So the whole question remains largely academic.
We admit to being intoxicated by violence on the screen in more or less equal proportion to the revulsion we feel for it in real life. Is this a question of demand creating content or content dictating demand? Or is it simply an inevitable symptom, evidence that art, any art, must above all represent the time in which it is conceived? Violence is such an intrinsic part of life on Earth now that any film that does not contain an explosive or bloody moment seems almost lacking something essential! During the ’60s, the various assassinations, the Vietnam War, and the Manson murders (to name only a few events of that decade), caused an enormous shift in our collective awareness of violence and our relationship with it. Movies played a central role in addressing this new awareness and in reconciling us to our capacity for violence. In some ways, they served to consolidate it, to confirm it, but at times also to confuse it. In other ways, they served a more creative function, that of forcing us to look more closely at the truth no matter how awful it might seem. What can one say, then, to people who flinch from screen violence, and insist they have no time for violent movies? This seems to me nothing more than moral squeamishness, yet this squeamishness is, to all intents and purposes, presented as virtue.
If a person had conquered all inner conflict, was truly at peace, and had absolutely no repressed violent tendencies within them, they would, I suppose, feel no need to be subjected to works that forced them to stare at the ugliness of the world. But if such a person exists, I doubt very much that he or she goes to movies! For the rest of us, violence is an issue that is anything but settled. If movies can serve to bring us closer to understanding our feelings about violence, our fear, fascination and loathing of it, then they have served an essential purpose, a social function no less, and deserve to be tolerated, as does all art, no matter how shocking or “immoral” it may ostensibly appear to be. This is the bottom line on all questions of censorship.
A film such as Natural Born Killers or Fight Club, which glorifies violence in order to condemn it (or vice versa), which plays with both sensibilities and bounces one extreme off the other, in an attempt (I think successful, though many disagree) to explode the whole conundrum entirely, is, by definition, an “irresponsible” work. It is perfectly feasible that either of these films might “inspire” some budding sociopath to act out his own maniacal fantasies. But it is also possible it would have the opposite effect, and, by satisfying our sociopath’s anti-social leanings (for the time being at least) without his having to act upon them, persuade him to stay at home. In both cases, of course, the film is only a catalyst (or a dampener). Something else would presumably have come along sooner or later and served the same function, so the tendency of the press to blame a film (or whatever) for a supposed “copycat” act suggests, quite irresponsibly I think, that people are mere marionettes, waiting, like Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate, for their trigger to be pulled. It gives to movies a power, and a responsibility, which they have by no means earned.
Put more simply: the fault, dear reader, lies not in the movies but in ourselves.
1. There remains of course a fine line between the supposed extremes, and such films as Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange could quite easily fit into both camps, though I would personally put them in the latter, along with such obviously “fascist” (i.e., force-advocating) works as Dirty Harry, and any recent Hollywood revenge fantasy you can name.
3. As Pauline Kael observed: “What does it mean when someone says to you in a prissy, accusing tone that he ‘doesn’t like’ violence? Obviously, he’s implying that your ability to look at it means that you like it. And you’re being told that you’re made of coarser stuff than he is.” “Fear of Movies,” When the Lights Go Down, pg. 457.
 Though personally I no longer enjoy a movie simply because it is violent, I certainly enjoy violence that is well-portrayed in a movie, just as I enjoy a dance number or a car chase or an alien landing that is skillfully or imaginatively rendered. The fact remains that, out of ten great American movies you could name from the last forty years (and especially out of that golden decade the ’70s), at least half of them, and probably more, would contain scenes of violence, and probably graphic violence at that.